The long read: Rangers, a club who lost their way but never the support of their loyal fans
The Glasgow giants were on the brink in 2012, unable to pay off huge debts. Now back in the Scottish top flight, they face a European heavyweight in Feyenoord in the Europa League
There’s no finer structure in British football than Rangers’s Bill Struth Main Stand at Ibrox, its Welsh red-brick facade dominating Edmiston Drive in Glasgow's working-class south-west.
Archibald Leitch’s construction seats 21,000 over three tiers and for the man who designed grandstands at Everton, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Fulham, Ibrox’s main stand represented the pinnacle of his career, the biggest and the most expensive stand ever built.
When it opened in 1929 – it was expanded with a balcony and Art Deco stairwells in 1991 – Glasgow boasted three of the world’s largest football grounds: Ibrox, Celtic Park and Hampden. The biggest ever crowd for a British league match remains the 118,567 who watched Rangers against Celtic in 1939.
Leitch was involved in Ibrox’s construction in 1899; Struth was the manager from 1920-54, a disciplinarian who insisted on his players wearing bowler hats when they travelled to games. Struth’s methods worked wonders as Rangers won 15 out of their then 21 league titles under him.
The stand has stood the test of time and, under a leaden Glasgow sky, Rangers are preparing for a big match against Legia Warsaw of Poland. It’s their eighth European game in seven weeks and a sell-out crowd is expected.
The area opposite the stand has changed. Celtic legend Kenny Dalglish grew up in the adjacent tower blocks, a Protestant Rangers fan who waited and waited for his childhood heroes to sign him. They never did. But Jock Stein, who was happy to sign players of either religion at a time when Rangers restricted themselves to Protestants, took him to Celtic.
Rangers have had many heroes of their own. Opposite a huge Icons of Ibrox painting depicting former stars including Graeme Souness and Paul Gascoigne, stalls sell Rangers scarves with names of popular players such as James Tavernier, Alfredo Morelos, Jermain Defoe and Andy Halliday, plus scarves commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Division’s role in the Battle of the Somme and "King Billy" – William of Orange.
There are flags depicting a British bulldog, the Red Hand of Ulster, Queen Elizabeth II (the team get changed under the watchful eye of a black and white photo of the British monarch), and the slogans Rule Britannia and No Surrender.
Rangers fans wave the Ulster Banner, in support of Protestantism and British unionism. Rangers were long perceived as standard bearers for native Scottish Protestants who feared the impact of an influx of the Irish Catholic immigrants who flocked to Glasgow and would identify with Celtic. Rangers and Celtic, yin and yang, the ultimate derby game.
Tonight’s a big one. Win and Rangers will be in the group stages of the Europa League. That’s not quite the heights of coming close to reaching the 1993 Champions League final, nor the final of 2008 Uefa Cup, but Rangers have experienced the most turbulent decade of their existence since then.
Four hours before kick off, we head into the offices of Club 1872, a Rangers fan collective with the fourth largest shareholding in the club. They are based in an early 1980s office block behind the Copland Road Stand.
“David Murray was the long-time owner of the club, the man in charge during the nine titles in a row,” explains Chris Graham, who was involved in the Rangers Supporters Trust, an independent fan group.
“Under him we had Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudrup; the stadium was developed and there was a lot of glamour. It was just before the Premier League got all their TV money. Rangers beat the English champions Leeds, with Eric Cantona, in the European Cup. We were the first British club in the last eight of the Champions League. Marseille won it that year but were later done for match fixing.”
That was the 1990s, but the noughties were a success and even at the turn of this decade, Rangers played Manchester United in two Champions League games.
But all wasn’t well. “Even at that time, the banks were beginning to call in Rangers’ loans,” Graham says. “Bank of Scotland were looking to move out of football. We brought Walter Smith back as manager and even though he was successful, Rangers started to downsize. Even when that started to bite, there was a realistic approach to reducing to the debt. It didn’t seem urgent.”
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (tax collectors) changed all that, stating that employee benefits trusts (a method Rangers used to top-up their players' salaries) were a tax-avoidance vehicle. Rangers went from a reasonably manageable club coping with a high debt to one struggling to pay the debts demanded. When tax inspectors began turning up at Ibrox, Murray decided to sell.
Murray always said he would only sell the club to someone with its best interests at heart. Amid puff pieces in the Scottish media about his wealth and a brighter future, Craig Whyte, a businessman who said he was a Rangers fan, took over for a nominal £1 fee – and an undertaking to take on the debt.
Desperate Rangers fans, worried for the future of their club, believed him, but the club’s bills went unpaid until HMRC demanded payment or the right to appoint their own administrators. It soon became apparent that Whyte didn’t have enough money.
We searched about his background but couldn’t find anything on him. This guy could have been an international trader living in Monaco for all we knew.
“We searched about his background but couldn’t find anything on him,” adds Mark Dingwall, long time editor of Rangers’s FollowFollow fanzine. “This guy could have been an international trader living in Monaco for all we knew.”
There was little love lost when Whyte called in the administrators on Valentine’s Day, 2012. After four months, Rangers entered the process of liquidation with administrators looking for a buyer. There was significant interest in one of the football’s best-supported football clubs and the assets were sold to Sevco Scotland Ltd, which later renamed itself The Rangers Football Club.
Rival fans, many who rejoiced in the giant falling, still chide Rangers supporters to this day, singing “You’re not Rangers any more” and calling them "Sevco", the name of the company led by Whyte’s successor, Charles Green, in 2012.
That was a turbulent year and with a public sentiment that Rangers should be punished for not conducting their financial affairs properly, Sevco failed to keep Rangers’s place in Scotland’s top flight.
“There was also a recognition that it would be a problem for Scottish football if one of the two biggest clubs ended in the third division,” Dingwall points out. That’s exactly what happened.
“Scottish football didn’t know what to do and it was dealt with in a piecemeal way,” explains Graham. “It wasn’t seen as fair by Rangers fans and there were other punishments, like a transfer ban.”
“Other clubs’ fans used the phrase ‘sporting integrity’,” says Laura Fawkes of 1872. “We felt that it wasn’t about integrity; they just wanted to stick it to Rangers and unite against a common enemy.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all bar one club voted to accept Rangers back into the league system.
“It was a bonanza for most of them,” says Dingwall, as Rangers appeared at tiny stadiums used to hosting 300 supporters. “We went to grounds and there would be a chalet which doubled up as a shop or cafe,” he laughs. “Our fans had a chance to properly ground hop around Scotland, but for me it was a relief just to be in existence because it really wasn’t much fun staring down the barrel and thinking that your club would be taken away from you. People would cry when they spoke to you that summer.”
One fan, Joanne Percival, who is on the Club 1872 board, went to every ground in the top four divisions except the two where Rangers didn’t play.
“Up until a few days before the first game we had no licence to play football,” she tells me. “There were no friendlies and we were only allowed to sign out-of-contract players. It could be refreshing with less hatred. We went to Peterhead and I saw ‘Welcome to Rangers’ banners outside houses.
“We could stand up too like the old days,” says Fawkes. “There was a lot to enjoy about it. Rangers fans call it the banter years.”
Rangers won three promotions in four years to return to the top flight in 2016. One player, Lee Wallace, went from the Premier League down to the fourth tier. And he came back a hero. Manager and legendary former goalscorer Ally McCoist said the players who had left missed their chance to be legends. One of the French players brought in bemoaned the lack of professionalism and players eating cakes at half time.
Rangers’ average home crowds stayed above 40,000, the highest ever for a team in the fourth tier of any league in the world, but funds remained short. In 2013 Green held an IPO to recapitalise Rangers which raised £22.1 million (Dh101.3m), yet there were more warning signs, with leaked emails showing how much executives were paying themselves.
There were also disputes between Green and Whyte. Green stepped down as Rangers's chief executive in 2013 after being publicly accused of racism by an anti-racism charity. He later apologised and his shareholding was bought by people close to Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley. That year, a naming rights agreement for Ibrox was reached with Ashley’s company, Sports Direct.
Mistrustful fans, who could also see the share price plummeting and Ashley trying to use Ibrox as collateral, began to boycott season tickets to hurt the club’s cash flow as Ashley sought to increase his influence in the club. His group was deeply unpopular and fans revolted – although with some reluctance as they didn’t want to be seen as harming the club.
When the then chairman, Dave Somers, held the AGM in a gazebo on the pitch in December 2014, tensions were high and the officials were booed by supporters chanting “Out! Out! Out!”. Somers's quote of "When you're chairman of Rangers, you can do it your way," illustrated the perceived contempt they had for supporters.
Rangers are more reliant on season ticket money than English clubs. With fan groups working with a common goal and organising boycotts, it succeeded.
In one week in February 2015, Rangers lost to Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final, then lost to Raith Rovers in the Challenge Cup final. Fans recall one of the eeriest atmospheres at Ibrox with just 11,000 fans. Then Rangers lost to Hibs.
It had to change, and it did. That year, a consortium led by Dave King, who had lost £20m when Rangers were liquidated, took control. There is more trust in Rangers’s current board than at any time in the last tumultuous decade.
“The fans are familiar with the major shareholders; they’ve long seen them around at games,” says Dingwall. “And we have to recognise that there are very few benevolent billionaires out that who want to sink money into Rangers.”
“There’s a recognition on the club’s part that we are entitled to our voice,” says Fawkes of Club 1872’s role. “They’ve never shut the door in our face and we’re welcome around the table, but that brings challenges because we have a support which rightly demands scrutiny after what has happened.
"When they don’t see that happening publicly there can be an assumption that it is not happening, yet there can be private dialogues which are more constructive and beneficial to the club and the support.
"We ask questions which need to be asked. There are times when we disagree, we can disappoint each other – where we don’t get our own way – but we make presentations robustly to the club on behalf of the fans.”
“I’m more optimistic about the future of Rangers now,” says Percival. “I would have never have admitted it, but there were times when I didn’t think we were going to get through it. There were so many challenges off the park. The turning point was when we went to court to stop Mike Ashley using Ibrox as collateral.”
Under their current manager, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, Rangers are climbing back towards the top of the Scottish football tree. The team which won the nine titles in the 90s and five in the noughties haven’t won the Scottish Premier League since 2011, but they finished second last season to a Celtic side who have won the last eight titles to make it 50. Rangers have 54.
Both clubs have managed nine consecutive title wins in their history. Regular Champions League football means Celtic are in a much stronger financial position and their wage bill is almost three times that of Rangers.
Gerrard arrived in 2018 when there was disquiet among fans about the direction the club was heading.
“It was a real coup for us; he’s a global phenomena,” says Dingwall of the rookie coach. “It’s like when we got Souness and we’ve felt a real improvement to the team and he’s helped attract players, like Ryan Kent from Liverpool. We’re getting a better level of player than we should do.” Veteran former Tottenham and England striker Defoe is also a Rangers player.
Gerrard avoids getting drawn in to the pitfalls set for him around the intense Old Firm rivalry. He would rather focus on results than emotive arguments he can never win.
“Beating Celtic twice in Old Firm games last season was significant,” says Graham. “It was a psychological thing not just for the players but the supporters. We’ve been watching Celtic beat us regularly and we rode our luck when we beat them. Not last season.”
Rangers and Celtic remain big names with vast followings and superb stadiums. Glasgow is a fine city, too. Scottish football has long been derided and the national team is at a low ebb, but they are big stages and Celtic have successfully sold their best players to the far richer Premier League clubs. If you can cut it in Glasgow then you can cut it elsewhere.
It’s a shame they can no longer compete but coming from a country of only five million, the TV deal for Scottish football is worth just four per cent of the Premier League equivalent. English teams who enjoy a fraction of the Old Firm’s support can easily outbid the Glasgow giants in the transfer market.
Sectarianism remains an issue. As the fans enter Ibrox, with the Legia Warsaw supporters blocked off by riot fences and watched police in a helicopter, the lower tier of the Broomloan Stand – where Rangers's most vocal fans, the Union Bears, gather in the corner – is empty because of a Uefa ban after “racist behaviour” in the first leg against Polish side.
“It is clear that Uefa has taken a decision to class sectarian singing in the same bracket as racism and as a result has a clear and rapidly escalating framework of punishments for any club charged with such offences,” reads a statement from Club 1872. “This means that we will quickly arrive at the point where Ibrox may be closed for a home European tie if outbreaks of sporadic sectarian singing continue.
"This will not only effect tens of thousands of our own supporters but also the management team and players, who would have to operate in such circumstances. This is particularly frustrating as the atmosphere generated at European games at Ibrox this season has been largely free of such sectarian songs.
“To be absolutely clear, songs, words and terms classed as sectarian by Uefa include The Billy Boys, any reference to 'Fenians' or any pejorative terms about Catholics or the Pope. The charges do not relate only to one song but to anything in the brackets above, including add-ons to otherwise inoffensive songs.”
The Pope does get a mention inside Ibrox in the form of Pope John Paul II’s face on a large flag which is unfurled in the 1,100-strong Legia Warsaw section. John Paul was a football fan, Pole and former footballer. It’s meant as a wind up but it while it goes viral online, it is largely unnoticed inside Ibrox.
The game is tense and equal. Gerrard, smartly dressed in a Crombie jacket, hollers instructions. Even with the closed section, the noise is far better than most English grounds and when Ibrox sings, fans in every stand of the 50,000-seater stadium join in.
The game is tense. Legia fans, with former Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc in their ranks, take their tops off, then they set off flares and the game is paused to allow the smoke to clear. Watching a big game at Ibrox is a fantastic assault on the senses but the tie remains goalless, until a dramatic, 91st-minute twist when Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos scores a header. You could hear the roar across the River Clyde.
The game finishes. The noise remains loud as fans slope away from Ibrox into the space where vast terraces once stood before the ground was mostly rebuilt in 1980, and into dark streets which look unchanged in a century.
By the Ibrox metro, The Louden Tavern, a Rangers stronghold, is bouncing. Outside, a happy man is trying to converse with a police horse, whose rider looks on like she’s seen it all before.
There’s a feeling of euphoria inside the tiny metro carriages travelling towards the city centre, punctured by self-criticism. One fan runs through the entire Rangers team and criticises every player. His friends nod in agreement saying "aye" before one admits" "They were a good outfit, they hadn’t conceded many goals."
"Aye, their number 11 was some player."
“How did the other lot get on?”
“Won 4-1,” comes the reply. “Could have been different – they hit the post early on.” There’s a brief silence before the feeling of happiness resurfaces.
Both Celtic and Rangers are in the Europa League this season. It’s not as lucrative as the Champions League (and Rangers are still losing money) where they both took vast followings to Barcelona this century. However, given both teams have already defeated decent sides to get there and the inclusion of the big teams they have been drawn against in the group stage, it’s a better fit for their level.
Rangers have been drawn in a group with distinguished Dutch club Feyenoord – who they host in their opening game on Thursday– Porto and Young Boys. Seven years after their future was under serious threat, six years since they were playing Stirling Albion and East Stirlingshire in Scotland’s fourth tier, where balls would be lost in hedges, they’ll take that.
Updated: September 18, 2019 07:03 PM